PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA - Cambodia's foreign ministry has issued a broad rebuttal to accusations of human rights abuses and political repression that have dogged the rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen for decades.
Titled "To Tell the Truth," the report released Tuesday describes the allegations of abuses and repression as a campaign of misinformation spread by a conspiracy of foreign powers led by the United States.
Local and international investigators have documented many of the abuses, which Cambodia claims are a "distortion of facts, lies and amplification of minor issues" aimed at discrediting the government while rallying NGOs and the opposition.
"Cambodia has been submerged, months after months, years after years, by reports from opposition media, biased NGOs and misinformed institutions, which twisted the historical facts and events in an attempt to portray a negative image of Cambodia and to lay the blame on the government," the report said.
The lengthy — and rare — governmental statement is a move to offset growing criticism by the international community, NGOs and critical media outlets of the crumbling of Cambodia's democratic institutions. Analysts are suggesting the release is a by-product of Cambodia's growing closeness with China and rising tensions ahead of elections.
The report points to "democracy promotion" by the U.S. in countries such as Ukraine and Honduras as evidence that Cambodia's sovereignty is at stake. The paper opens by quoting former U.S. Representative Ron Paul, a Republican from Texas, who said the U.S. sends "billions of dollars to push regime change overseas."
Cambodians are due to go to the polls in less than two months to choose new local representatives, while a general election is scheduled for 2018. And the paper came two weeks after the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released an analysis of increasing restrictions on political freedom.
David Josar, deputy spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, said: "We encourage the government of Cambodia to expend less energy propagating unfounded conspiracy theories and instead devote its resources to addressing the needs of the Cambodian people and ensuring its upcoming elections are free and fair."
'Break' from U.S.
Sok Eysan, spokesman for Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party, said the paper was issued because rights groups, civil society and the media base their reporting on a "subjective mind-set and opposing the current government."
Sok said the government decision to release the report was the need "for the explanation to both the national and international communities. If we had not … there might have been misunderstandings and accusations that the government did not do its job properly, violate human rights or abuse multi-party democracy, etc.
"If we said nothing, they would have accused us of hiding things," he added.
Cham Bunthet, a political analyst and adviser to the newly established Grassroots Democracy Party, saw the paper's release as a gesture "to show that America is not Cambodia's big brother.
"I believe the government's aim was to break away from the U.S. and partner with the Chinese to change the Cambodian government into a new governmental form — single-party government," he said.
But Eang Vuthy, executive director of Equity Cambodia, who regularly observes the country's social and political developments, pointed out "Cambodia remains a poor country and it needs both technical and financial assistance, so China alone is not sufficient for the country's development." Cambodia, he said, needs "to cooperate with other big countries, especially the European Union and the United States."
Rhona Smith, the U.N.'s Special Rapporteur to Cambodia, was singled out for saying last year the "time to blame the troubles of the last century for the situation today is surely over." The government paper called her statement "reckless" and demonstrated "sheer contempt" for "the suffering from crimes against humanity and genocide."
Report 'essential for meaningful dialogue'
The report also targets Wan-Hea Lee, the country director of the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), saying she violated the U.N. Standards of Conduct by making "totally prejudicial" statements against the government.
Lee had said that the government's decision to prevent the then-opposition leader Sam Rainsy from returning to Cambodia from self-imposed exile in France was "unjustified and arbitrary."
In an email to VOA, Lee said she welcomed the candid nature of the paper as "essential for meaningful dialogue."
It also describes U.S. government-supported outlets, the VOA and Radio Free Asia, as "two die hard pro-opposition radio stations" that are broadcast nationwide without censorship.
VOA director Amanda Bennett said in response that "Voice of America has been known for decades and around the world for being a fair, neutral and objective news service. That is the way we operate in Cambodia as we do in the rest of the world."
The report accused the country's English-language press — with the notable exception of the fledgling Khmer Times — of printing "unsubstantiated accusations on a daily basis."
"Printed press is so free that the Cambodia Daily and the Phnom Penh Post, the two main English newspapers with a Khmer version, publish on a daily basis strong criticisms and unsubstantiated accusations against the Government, based on pure suspicions," according to the report.
Stuart White, acting editor-in-chief of the Phnom Penh Post, the oldest English-language newspaper in the country, said: "Our mission is, and will continue to be, reporting fairly and without bias and holding those in power to account in the interests of transparency and the public good."
Mony Say contributed to this report which originated with the VOA Khmer Service.